MONTREAL: At birth, Brother André was so weak and sickly that his parents had the newborn baptized immediately, fearing he wouldn’t survive till morning.
He lived to the venerable age of 91.
His heart, which ceased beating just past midnight on Jan. 6, 1937, is on display in a reliquary at St. Joseph’s Oratory, a rather macabre beacon to pilgrims who still come by the millions in search of comfort, spirituality and miracles, many ascending the basilica’s 283 steps on their knees.
It’s a heart, by the way, that was abducted in March 1973 and held for ransom. The archbishop of Montreal declined to deal, saying: “Brother André’s heart is priceless so we refuse to pay any price for it.’’
Thwarted, left with a heart on their hands and perhaps spooked, the thieves eventually made an anonymous call in December 1974, informing the diocese where the wayward organ could be found. The pilferers were never apprehended. So Brother André has been around, though never apparently to Rome, in whole or in parts.
Next Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI will make this humble and peripatetic Holy Cross brother — orphaned at 12, unschooled and illiterate, itinerant labourer, lowly college porter for most of his adult life — a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. From Alfred Bessette, né, to Brother André to St. André, only the second Canadian ever canonized.
It takes a miracle, literally. An act of thaumaturgy, a work of wonder scientifically inexplicable, rigorously verified, credited to posthumous intercession by a “blessed’’ individual: answered prayers.
For Brother André, it was a 9-year-old boy with a severe cranial injury, in an irreversible coma following a car accident outside Montreal in 1999. That child recovered completely after his family prayed fervently to Brother André, confounding all medical experts, and is now a healthy university student.
But there is also the broader miracle of Brother André’s own life, the sheer unlikelihood of a halo being fitted for this unlettered, chronically frail, backward fellow — mocked for ultra-piety by his own Holy Cross brethren — who lacked the stuff of priesthood and barely got accepted by his order for the inferior role of “brother,” the donkey-work crew of religious community.
That meant four decades as gatekeeper at Notre Dame College in Montreal, leaving his claustrophobic cubicle only to perform menial jobs, variously janitor and barber to youths attending the school.
Yet he purportedly cured thousands of infirm supplicants while alive and built a tiny chapel in the then woods on the slope of Mount Royal, across from the college, that would be transformed into the largest shrine on Earth dedicated to St. Joseph, husband of Mary, foster father to Jesus Christ and special “friend’’ to the boy from Saint-Grégoire d’Iberville.
Skeptics will remain unconvinced. And a very special skeptic — known formerly as the Devil’s Advocate (that term sadly dropped by a modernizing Vatican) — made the case against André during the long investigative process on the road to sainthood, with a 1982 stop for beatification by Pope John Paul II.
Of course, JP2 was an enthusiastic anointer, unparalleled in his elevation of mere mortals to the ranks of big league divine. As pope, he canonized a slate of 482 and beatified 1,338.
It’s a huge jump, though, from “blessed’’ to saint.
“Oh, this is big, this is very big,’’ says Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of Salt + Light Television in Toronto, which has prepared a documentary on Brother André and is broadcasting next weekend’s canonization mass back to Canada.
“It’s a very appropriate moment because we need a shot in the arm. The Catholic Church is suffering, has been hurting around the world for the past few years, with all the ugly abuse that’s come to light,” says Father Rosica. “Against that backdrop what we have here is the story of a man, a brother, doing something truly extraordinary in his life.’’
Not all saints, in fact very few of them, performed miracles whilst still alive. Though beatification requires proof of a miracle post-death (the Vatican never reveals those details) and canonization demands a second, separate miracle (shared with the public), Brother André is quite distinct for the countless wonders he is believed to have performed throughout his life — although never claiming credit for any of them, insisting he was only a facilitator for St. Joseph, the go-between.
Indeed, his superiors were for the longest time displeased with André’s tactics — his rubbing of St. Joseph medals against wounds and lame limbs, his massaging of burnt oil into ailing flesh. This was just the kind of snake-oil charlatan tricks that brought the church into disrepute.
Still, if even only a small fraction of those who beseeched Brother André for intervention walked away “healed” — sometimes immediately, more often weeks or months later — they nevertheless numbered in the thousands. Those hundreds of discarded crutches and canes, corsets and other prostheses that fill niches in the votive chapel of St. Joseph’s — known as ex-voto signs of thanksgiving — are silent testament to favours rendered, or at least the faithful hold that to be true.
It is beyond rational explanation.
Why Brother André? What made him so exceptional?
This was a man without any useful skills, a willing but generally incompetent labourer who, like so many fellow French-Canadians driven from their rural communities for industrial employment, spent years moving around the American northeast in search of factory jobs.
Returning to Montreal, he was at first rejected as a novitiate by the Holy Cross Order because they worried the frail 5-foot-tall applicant would be incapable of performing menial work and would end up as no more than a burden. Further, upon acceptance, he was endlessly tedious in his devotion to St. Joseph, a one-man cheering section for a low-wattage saint who, though official patron of Canada, had never received much veneration among the panoply of halo-wearers.
“(Joseph) was a background kind of guy,’’ Father Claude Grou, rector of the Oratory, concedes with a chuckle. “I think that’s why Brother André liked him so much, because he was a background kind of guy too.
“He was happy with his work as a doorkeeper. He never wanted to become the star of the story. That’s just the way it turned out. Joseph was a simple man and that appealed to Brother André.’’
Such simplicity of faith and lifestyle, Grou suggests, accounts for Brother André’s enduring popularity, at least in Quebec, despite a dramatic drop-off in the Church’s relevance, even among French-Canadian Catholics. His death drew more mourners, filing by the casket, than that of prime ministers.
“Why do people care so much about him, about this process of becoming a saint, when we have so many questions concerning the church as a structure?’’ Grou muses. “I would say the first thing is that Brother André doesn’t appear so much as a man of structure but a man of the people. He was a brother and a friend and this is precisely what many found so attractive about him. He just believed in something and made what he believed happen.’’
What he specifically made happen was construction of a teensy chapel dedicated to Joseph, later replaced by a modestly larger facility and eventually, as catalyst for the huge donated sums needed, this massive basilica André never actually lived to see completed, with upwards of 2 million pilgrims visiting annually. Pope John Paul came here to pray at André’s tomb as well.
Although André has been dead for 63 years, some witnesses to his “miracles’’ are still alive; plenty more are those who claim ancestors cured by the brother.
“In the context of canonization, we have heard from many, many people telling us their own stories,’’ says Grou. “We receive more than a thousand letters a year from such people. Of course, there’s no way that we can study all cases of people who say they were cured by Brother André.’’
The vast majority of supplicants weren’t healed. Yet they all departed consoled, apparently, strengthened spiritually by their shared praying with André. To ask why one person is cured and not another equally worthy faithful is beyond the ken of the Church.
“It would be the same as someone who gets cancer saying, ‘why me?’ That is God’s mystery. There’s no answer to that question, except this phrase from the Bible: God’s ways are not our ways.’’
Grou is an educated man who spent 16 years ministering in India before becoming Superior General in Rome for the entire Holy Cross congregation, assigned to rector of St. Joseph’s Oratory in 2005. He understands the incredulity with which miracles are attended in a modern age. Even with the intense scrutiny that the Vatican applies to miracle-vetting, in the end, a supernatural phenomenon can only be taken on faith, just like the quaint notion of sainthood in a modern, secular age.
“I know the intellectual arguments against it,’’ says Grou. “We think from our brain. But people don’t only live with the brain. People come here to light a lamp, to touch the foot of St. Joseph’s statue, to put their hand on the crucifix, on Brother André’s tomb.
“We experience things with our whole body, our senses. From that perspective, I think we still need saints that will inspire and guide us in our lives.
“I believe in miracles.’’